Pandora’s Sisters: Diane Victor’s New Editons at DKW

Victor - After Eden, 2008. Etching.
Victor – After Eden, 2008. Etching.

Diane Victor’s work is usually described as social commentary, but what critics often miss, perhaps because her strong imagery repels the squeamish or faint-hearted before they can get a proper look, is its humour, either in the form of biting satire or revealed in the artist’s wry self-deprecation. Since the seriousness of Victor’s work is also, in part, a product of her extraordinary obsession with detail, viewers often need to spend time with the images to appreciate the ways in which Victor resolves the tension between technique and subject matter.

A trio of prints created at David Krut Print Workshop with printmaker Niall Bingham confirms this latter observation, showing not only Victor’s superb draughtsmanship and skill as a printmaker, but demonstrating her ability to strike a balance between seriousness and comedy.

Lot’s Wife is a densely layered print that began with a hardground etching that produced a finely drawn tableau: a woman carrying a child on her back and several shopping bags faces a burning horizon (the Sodom and Gomorrah of the biblical story) and a man with three children gathered closely around him turns back to watch her, a knowing smile on his face. To the etching Victor added burnishing to create areas of light and shade, hard and soft ground to produce varying densities and, finally, spraypaint and rosin aquatints to give a velvety blackness to key areas of the print. The result is a profoundly moody and detailed image, at once full of pathos and menace. The humour – which finally leaps from the print once one has got past its sobriety – is to be found in the bag that Lot’s wife holds in her right hand. “Cerebos, see how it runs,” reads the text on the packet, alluding to the pillar of salt that the woman is soon to become, all because, as Victor says with dry wit, “she wanted to know too much”.

Where the print Lot’s Wife is almost completely covered, from edge to edge, by dark areas of shade and texture, the second print in the suite, Bluebeard’s Wife, is lighter in tone since Victor has left areas of the plate unmarked. Again, Victor has employed a remarkable variety of printmaking techniques. To shade the clothing of the two characters (Bluebeard and his all-too-knowing wife) and to give texture to the drapery, she has laid different cloths down on a soft ground. The cloths are passed through the press to produce an imprint of fibres in the ground. When the plate is etched – and even here, Victor intervenes, blocking out areas that she does not want bitten by the acid – the parts of the image to which the cloth was applied are superbly detailed and suggestive. Finally, Victor has added drypoint in the form of a hyena that dominates the centre of the print, and the faintest suggestion of a landscape along the horizon. But technique, happily, does not overwhelm the wonderful humour of this work. Bluebeard’s wife, to the right of the image, leans saucily against a cupboard full of the heads of Bluebeard’s other wives. Her merry flaunting of her nakedness makes her an unlikely victim of his legendary pathology. Bluebeard, pictured on the left, sans beard, slinks away like a lecherous old man, holding the limp body of a hare, an allusion perhaps to the bodies of his poor, dead wives. The sordid details of the fairytale are given an idiosyncratic twist in Victor’s version, most particularly through the presence of the hyena, which looms large in the centre of the image.

After Eden completes this suite of prints about women who seek to know more than they are supposed to. In the biblical story, Eve’s temptation leads to her downfall and banishment from Eden, but in Victor’s extraordinary reinterpretation, Eve (reminiscent of Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque) lolls with her snake lover in unabashed post-coital bliss. At the foot of her bed, Eve’s computer shows a googled page on gardening and beneath her pillow is a manual on Gardening for Beginners. Through the window, a scene of apple harvesting presents a utopian vision of an Eden in which lions, humans and lambs cavort beneath trees laden with fruit. In this audacious and provocative work, the humour that is incipient in the two companion prints is unmissable. After Eden completes and comments on the two other works, casting the female protagonist as the agent of her own destiny, demonstrating Victor’s unorthodox recasting of well-used narratives, and presenting a psychological landscape that is as funny as it is disturbing.

– Bronwyn Law-Viljoen, April 2008